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Why are we fascinated by The Terror? Because we love it when things go wrong

Inspired by true events (but with a twist), The Terror appeals to our attraction to stories of "magnificent failure", writes Ralph Jones.

The Terror

The Terror is exquisite television. I watched all seven-ish hours of it like a supernatural force was guiding my hand. I couldn’t stop. I woke up to watch it first thing in the morning; I fell asleep after watching it last thing at night. It brought back to me the joy of TV under the covers: the pleasure of a show so engrossing that you feel like you’ve discovered a wonderful secret.

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In case you’re not familiar, The Terror is the dramatisation of what might have happened on the real, doomed 1845 expedition to the Arctic that sought to find the Northwest Passage, a sea route along the north coast of North America and between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It’s based on – but departs from – Dan Simmons’ 2007 novel of the same name.

And it is brilliant. In unsparing detail it depicts the horribly inevitable ways that the men onboard – whether they are the most senior or the most disposable – succumb to disease, paranoia and, of course, the grisly fate of many a sailor stranded at sea: cannibalism.

The Terror - Ep1 - Go For Broke

The way I devoured The Terror – mad-eyed, like a feral animal – reminded me of the only recent series I can remember watching with such abandon: Chernobyl. This wasn’t the only similarity; besides both programmes coincidentally featuring Jared Harris as the character who warns the authorities of the danger to which they are blind, both series are also about things going catastrophically wrong.

In Harris’ words, they are about “magnificent failure”. This, I think, is key to their success.

Why was I unable to stop watching The Terror, when I knew that the expedition was doomed? Why did people adore Chernobyl, when not only was the story old news but the most conventionally dramatic element – the explosion – happened in the first few minutes?

Why? Because we’re unable to tear ourselves away from stories of tragedy. They make us feel human.

Yes, we love narratives about underdogs succeeding. We love to watch stories like The Full Monty, in which unlikely (invariably ‘plucky’) bands of misfits battle against the odds to pull off something remarkable. The Full Monty wouldn’t have become the hit it was if – spoiler – the men had given up their plan and gone to the pub instead of mounting a strip show at the film’s climax; Slumdog Millionaire would certainly not have won its Oscars if – spoiler – Jamal Malik had got his last question wrong and failed to become a millionaire.

But, as the success of The Terror proves, we also love the polar opposite of these stories (pun intended): we cannot help it that we are fascinated by failure.

In the last few years, writer Elizabeth Day’s podcast ‘How to Fail’ has become a huge and perhaps countercultural hit. Day interviews people known for their successes about their failures: when it went wrong for them and how. People – myself included – have been seduced by its simple conceit. Yes, we are happy that likeable people have become successful; but deep down we all want to hear about their failed auditions and about how their novel was rejected 812 times. Because social media incentivises the advertisement of our success, we are at constant risk of forgetting that all over the world people are failing.

In fact, failure is much more prominent a feature of life than success. Just ask any writer – myself included. Perhaps the more success we see, the more these tales of disaster appeal to us: they are a reminder that history is full of people c**king things up.

Jared Harris as Francis Crozier in The Terror
Jared Harris as Francis Crozier in The Terror (BBC)

I would argue that the same impetus explains the success of the news and of platforms like Twitter, on which people derive energy from things going wrong. I don’t think people are being honest, generally, if they say that they use Twitter in the hope that they will see something warm and heartening. I think that people are most animated and fascinated when something bad – therefore inherently dramatic – takes place. This urge could be what Twitter’s founders rely on; it is what explains why people tune in to the news; and it fuels a great deal of the stories we watch.

I don’t want to diminish the sublime acting, writing and cinematography at the heart of The Terror (or indeed Chernobyl). It is not as simple as ‘Choose a disaster, rake in the cash.’ Both shows are expertly crafted, as one would expect, but their stories – the human pride, failure and suffering – are what compel the viewer onward and under the duvet.

We know that the men who set sail for the Arctic are not coming home. We know that things will spin out of control. But we want to know how. And, crucially, we want to watch.

You can purchase Dan Simmons’ book upon which the series is based The Terror on Amazon.

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The Terror continues on Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC Two, and the entire 10-part drama is available to watch on BBC iPlayer. Take a look at more of our Drama coverage, or check out our TV guide to find out what else is on.